Wednesday, 4 September 2013

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Fruit-seller, Delhi.
We stare at each other through the window, the fruit-seller and I.  I stand with espresso in hand: he guards his cart of exotic fruit.  As we stand there for a silent moment on this, my last day in Delhi, I think to myself: other than a plate of floor to ceiling glass, what separates me from him?
Geography led my ancestors to flee their overpopulated nation and colonize a new homeland, while his country was taken over. Geography enriched my nation with natural resources, and left his with less. Geography makes my land sparsely populated while his is one of the most crowded in the world. Geography led us to a reality in which my morning coffee, consumed in air-conditioned comfort, costs more than the fruit seller will earn in an entire day beneath sweltering Indian skies.

Shanghai, 1984
I met my husband in Shanghai just as China was opening itself up to the west. Every summer, often accompanied by our children, we travel.  Beyond the sites, cultures and people, we've shared many experiences that have shaped our worldview.  We've debated what to do when beggars ask for food for their children; been robbed by corrupt police; gritted our teeth over unnecessary bureaucratic complexities; witnessed the long term effects of genocide, civil war, natural disaster, economic collapse, and terrorism. We've seen how people live their lives under communism, unregulated capitalism, in dictatorships, police states, theocracies and corrupt “democracies”.  But India? India was mind-blowing. 

Mumbai Pavement Dwellers.
Culturally and linguistically more diverse than the entire continent of Africa, India is faced with enormous challenges. Although the food is fabulous, although men like the fruit-seller stock wonderful varieties of produce, although India ranks second in the world for agricultural output, 55% of India’s children suffer from malnutrition. Home to one third of the world’s poor, India defines extreme poverty (experienced by 138 million of its citizens) as living on 44 Canadian cents a day in a nation where just one cheap meal costs 31 cents. In an economy with impressive growth rates, disparity is all around.  Slums beside elegant apartment complexes; pavement dwellers living on sidewalks just meters away from prestigious hotels. The economic boom has bypassed most Indians. Income disparity has doubled over the past 20 years and it’s estimated that by the year 2015 one quarter of India’s people will still be living in extreme poverty. Everywhere we go we see men, men and more men.  Where are the women?  Although female infanticide and gender-selective abortion are illegal, there are presently 37 million more men than women in India. In the 0-6 age group, there are 7 million fewer girls than boys. One woman is killed over a dowry dispute every hour.

On this, my last day in Delhi, I ponder these things. Alongside India’s beauty there is an ugliness that is in your face every minute of every day and while it may not be my place to judge, I can question. I can question how people in a democracy allow such disparity. I can wonder how mothers choose to abort their daughters.  I can marvel at how both men and women tolerate such inequality. And I can wonder, as I watch the fruit-seller watch me through that place glass window, does he think about my life as much as I think about his?